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Interoperability for the other 90 percent of the world

Open source makes the most sense for enterprises. Why? Because if they want to interoperate with their own code, they need code that is extensible,

With all the talk about interoperability rumbling around, I thought a quick sanity check would be in order. Vendors are fond of talking about interoperability, but myopia-challenged as we are, we tend to forget that most software is not developed by vendors. It's developed by so-called "customers."

Bravo to Microsoft for making much of its interoperability with Novell! Unfortunately, this hardly resolves even a rounding error's worth of the industry's need to interoperate with enterprise-developed software.

For that, open source is a critical requirement. Open source, unencumbered by silly patents, closed APIs, and such. Open source because, quite frankly, the enterprise is often not going to want to be bothered by or with a vendor during the integration process. A real-life case study may help to convince those incapable of seeing past their proprietary noses.

I was meeting with an Alfresco customer recently in London. The customer is a top-10 financial services company with a small army of developers. In this, it is atypical of many enterprises, but I've heard similar stories from an increasing number of enterprises that view IT as a strategic differentiator.

The customer was having some issues getting single sign-on to work with Alfresco. My sales engineer logically asked, "What directory are you authenticating against? Active Directory? eDirectory?" The answer was, "None of the above. We developed our own authentication system."

Enter open source. Because this Alfresco customer has absolute rights to view and modify our source code, it is actively working with us to integrate its authentication system with the Alfresco content collaboration/management system. It's a great partnership. Where it is using community-developed open-source software (Apache, Linux, etc.), it is simply making the changes on its own with the assistance of members of that community.

Open source lends itself to true interoperability much better than proprietary software does, if for no other reason than the reality that most software does not involve a vendor. It involves a customer solving its own itch. Open source fits nicely into this, the way software is actually developed and used in the real world.

No, not everyone wants to modify source code. Nor do they need to do so. This is a benefit that some exercise directly, while others benefit as surrogates.

But I've been surprised by the diversity of companies who do precisely this. I've been less surprised to see IT people from all sizes of companies actively getting involved with their support issues because they can with open source. They may call with a support issue but it's no longer the passive "I broke, you fix" (or, really, "You broke, you fix when it's convenient for you") relationship that proprietary software demands. Instead, they're investigating their issues before calling so that the support process is easier.

Unfortunately for proprietary vendors, open source is setting the agenda here, as can be evidenced by Microsoft slowly ceding control (Shared Source Initiative, anyone?) of its code back to the customers who really should own it. They pay for it, after all.

For the moment, "You make believe that you are still in charge," as Thom Yorke sings in "The Clock." But eventually the charade will end. Customers are in control. Or should be. That's how grown-up industries act.

Typed to the tune of Thom Yorke's "Atoms for Peace." Blame him.